As the Blues look stronger and the Hawks falter, St. Louis can learn important lessons from Chicago.
[This article appeared last night in our game-day print paper.]
Let's hope the St. Louis Blues don't turn into the Chicago Blackhawks. It wasn't that long ago that even the most Hawk-hating folks in Blues fandom were being forced to admit that the NHL neighbors to the north were becoming a model franchise. The reigns of the team were finally wrested from the cold, dead hands of "Dollar" Bill Wirtz and under the intelligent management of his son, Rocky Wirtz, the Blackhawks quickly went from being an annual punch line to becoming a powerhouse team with an energized fan base.
Wirtz the Younger quickly undid many of his father's seemingly antagonistic policies. Rather than daring Chicagoans to be fans of the team, Rocky brought them out in droves - putting the team on free television for the first time in decades, bringing back past Hawk heroes, and, most importantly, properly building a strong on-ice product.
The Blackhawks, we were all forced to admit, were finally doing it right and becoming a dominant team along the way. You could argue that the Blues have been following a similar blueprint since the lockout. The new owners have been much more in tune with making the right moves to get fans back into a building that was essentially abandoned during the last year of the Bill and Money Laurie ownership. The Lauries didn't treat Blues fans as badly as Bill Wirtz had treated Hawk fans, but they weren't exactly standing out front meeting and greeting fans at the doors, like the Checketts group has often done.
The Blues, like the Hawks before them, built up a strong core of players with good drafts, a couple key trades and some strong free agent signings. The Blackhawks went from one playoff appearance in the previous 10 years to a Conference Final appearance to a Stanley Cup win. They had the fans, they had the national attention, they had the core group of players. The Blackhawks, much to Blues fans' chagrin, were poised to be a contender every year for a long time to come.
Similarly, we're all feeling pretty confident about our Blues bunch right about now. The fans are back, the team is playing well against good teams and bad teams, at home and on the road. The core of this group is still very young, but also fairly seasoned. It's not hard to see similarities between our team and the last two Stanley Cup champions, the 2010 Blackhawks included.
But the Blackhawks made one huge error that derailed their successful building plan. During the summer before their Cup run, their front office made a simple, stupid clerical error that undermined everything they'd built. They failed to send in a couple qualifying offers on their restricted free agents on time. In failing to get the paperwork filed properly, the Hawks made six players eligible to become unrestricted free agents. Rather than having the most power in negotiations to re-sign Kris Versteeg, Troy Brouwer, Cam Barker, Ben Eager, Aaron Johnson and Colin Fraser, they then had to pay out much higher salaries to all of them or risk losing them for nothing in free agency. With the window of Cup opportunity just starting to open, the Blackhawks had no choice but to sign the six players to keep their secondary scoring, defense and role players in the fold.
That one careless mistake put Chicago in a position where they went from slowly built, strong dynasty to "win now" mode. Management knew that at the end of that campaign three of their all-stars in Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith were all due new contracts. They had previously overspent on Brian Campbell and recently thrown a huge contract at Marian Hossa. The high dollar payouts combined with the overpayment for the Unsigned Six and the pending new contracts for defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and goaltender Antti Niemi were a big problem on the horizon for Chicago.
The Hawks, to their credit, did get it done that year, earning a championship. After they won the Cup, management almost immediately had to start disassembling their team, something I don't think they had planned on doing prior to the summer of 2009 screw-up. The summer of 2010 saw them trade away Dustin Byfuglien, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel, Kris Versteeg, Colin Fraser and Andrew Ladd. With both Niemi and Hjalmarsson due for big pay increases, the Hawks walked away from Niemi's arbitration award, making him a free agent. He was quickly scooped up by San Jose. They have had to trade Brian Campbell, Brouwer, Adam Burish and Tomas Kopecky; all key Hawks during their Cup win.
And that's what I think the Blues' front office needs to learn most from the Blackhawks. They got their Cup, yes. They kept their marquee players, yes. But in the process they have crippled themselves. No one talks about the Blackhawks as a perennial Stanley Cup contender now, less than two years removed from their dominant season and Cup win. Their fans are hoping they finish sixth in the seedings so they get an easy first round opponent. Beyond the first round, they acknowledge, they're gonna need some luck to advance.
The lesson we should all learn from this is that it can happen that fast. All the smart rebuilding in the world doesn't mean anything if you choke in the front office and put your team in a "one and done" situation. Imagine how Hawks fans would feel if they hadn't won the Cup in 2010. Would they really believe that they have a legitimate chance to win one anytime in the next 10 years? Would they still be packing their building for every game or would they have run off the newer fans already?
The Blues are constructed the way Chicago was, just better. Sure there are plenty of young guys due for big pay increases in the coming years. But management has allowed for that, as they have $28 million in cap space next year to allow them to re-sign T.J. Oshie and give Alex Pietrangelo a nice raise and to negotiate with David Perron and Chris Stewart. There are a bunch of older unrestricted guys due for new contracts this summer, but the Blues are in a great position to be able to pick and choose who comes back and who does not. There are good young players on entry level contracts set to come into the lineup next year in Ian Cole and Jaden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko.
The Blues are doing it smart. Building for not just one Cup run, but for several. Just like the Blackhawks once were.
Please Blues, don't be the Blackhawks.
-Sean "Why you mad, Hawkfan?" Gallagher